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Egyptian president gives army more power ahead of vote

Egyptian army soldiers stood guard near the presidential palace in Cairo on Sunday as protesters stood on top of cement blocks. Monday was relatively quiet in the city, but both sides planned to hold demonstrations on Tuesday.

HASSAN AMMAR /ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egyptian army soldiers stood guard near the presidential palace in Cairo on Sunday as protesters stood on top of cement blocks. Monday was relatively quiet in the city, but both sides planned to hold demonstrations on Tuesday.

CAIRO — A decree issued by President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt giving the military temporary authority to arrest civilians and protect ‘‘vital facilities of the state’’ took effect Monday, as a standoff continued over an upcoming referendum on a controversial draft constitution.

The military’s authority will last until the results of the referendum, which is scheduled for Saturday, are announced.

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Morsi’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood backers and his liberal, secular, and non-Islamist opponents have both called for large demonstrations Tuesday, amid the inability of the two sides to reach a compromise.

After a string of turbulent, confusing, and at times violent days, Monday was relatively quiet in Cairo. There was no additional military presence in the streets beyond the tanks and soldiers around the presidential palace, which were deployed after deadly clashes last week.

Analysts said it was difficult to know exactly what the new military decree might mean in the context of Egypt’s ongoing political crisis, which has divided the nation’s revolutionaries nearly two years after they ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.

‘‘I don’t know what to make of it,’’ said Nathan Brown, a Middle East analyst and professor at George Washington University. ‘‘When I read the text of the decree it looks like the military’s job is to provide security during the voting process. . . . But in Egypt, anytime you bring in the military, it has political overtones that set people on edge — for good reason.’’

Brown said it was unclear whether an article in the new decree granting the military ‘‘all the authorities of judicial officers’’ portended trials of civilians in military courts, which has been a deeply controversial matter during Egypt’s fragile transition period.

So far, only Morsi has put concessions on the table, ­although his opponents have described them as tricks and half measures.

Morsi on Sunday night rescinded the Nov. 22 decree that gave him such sweeping powers, but replaced it with one that still allows him to issue decrees that are immune from legal challenge. And he decided to push ahead with the referendum on the draft constitution, even though his opposition deems the document illegitimate.

Morsi followed his newest decree on Sunday with a new tax reform law, raising levies on income, property, and commodities such as alcohol and cigarettes, aimed at building support for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that his government is pursuing. Later in the evening, however, Morsi suspended the law.

What course the opposition will take in opposing the referendum — either voting against it or boycotting the vote altogether — remains unclear. The opposition has offered much rage, but little in the way of concessions or a unified strategy.

‘‘The National Salvation Front has decided not to recognize the upcoming referendum and the draft constitution, which it considers farcical,’’ according to a statement from the alliance of Egypt’s most prominent opposition groups.

The statement stopped short of using the word boycott, but it said the Morsi-backed charter ‘‘does not reflect the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people following the January 25 Revolution’’ that ousted Mubarak.

The alliance said going forward with the vote could plunge the country into further chaos. But the warning — which came more than 20 hours after Morsi’s revised decree, in contrast to more immediate responses the alliance often issues on Twitter — underscored the challenges facing Egypt’s broad but disparate opposition with the vote less than a week away.

The anti-Morsi movement, which has brought together liberals, secularists, human rights activists, and old-regime loyalists, has yet to reach a consensus on whether to vote against the referendum or boycott it altogether.

Even if they were clearly unified, the opposition would have a tough time overcoming the organization and street power of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers. Some analysts said that calling for a boycott would be a wiser strategy since it would be consistent with opposition claims that the constitution-drafting process was flawed and unrepresentative.

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